Finding ways to create something beautiful in the dark nights of a complex world
May 22, 2022

The Colour of Water


I want to describe to you what I saw today, but I can't. We have so many words to describe and represent the most complex of concepts. Why then is it almost impossible to describe something so simple and ordinary as the colour of the water earlier today? Kathleen Jamie and Thomas Merton (with a little excursive with Hana Videen) help us to find some answers. 

Journal entry:

17th May, Tuesday

"The hills are painted a dusty grey and the world is filled with the quietness of sheep, the cry of distant crows and drip and splash of rain upon young oak leaves. 

The warm touch of bark beneath my hand and the shiver of a silvery mist. A perfect way to watch the slow dance of dawn."

Episode Information:

Water 1

In this episode I cite or read extracts from:

Kathleen Jamie’s (2004) Dublin Review article ‘Sabbath’ (open access), which can also be found in her (2005) book Findings published by Sort Of Books.

Hana Videen’s (2022)  The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English published by Princeton University Press. 

Thomas Merton’s (2015) When the Trees Say Nothing: Writings on nature published by Ave Maria Press. 

Water 2Water 3General Details

In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.

Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence. 

Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.

All other audio recorded on site. 

Contact
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Transcript

JOURNAL ENTRY

7th May, Tuesday

"The hills are painted a dusty grey and the world is filled with the quietness of sheep, the cry of distant crows and drip and splash of rain upon young oak leaves. The warm touch of bark beneath my hand and the shiver of a silvery mist. A perfect way to watch the slow dance of dawn."

 

NEWS FROM THE MOORINGS  

With the earth's tilt and dance, the twilights are getting longer, stretching well into the night. Patches of light leak across the sky, although there is no moon tonight. The alders stand like patient sentinels beside the quiet water. A faint breeze ruffles the reeds. 

I am so glad you are here. This is narrowboat Erica, narrowcasting into the night-time. Welcome aboard. 

It's been a stormy, steamy, sort of week. A spell of very warm, sunny, weather was broken by thunder and rain storms. Some heavy. I say, thunder storms. I am told we had them, but must have slept through it! There has certainly been a lot of building cu-nimb clouds - thunderclouds during the middle part of the week.  

However, the temperatures remain fairly high giving the days, particularly mornings, quite a steamy - greenhouse-type - feeling and making us very grateful for the, at times, fairly gusting winds they are soft and playful.   

The elder is now bursting. Each year, it always takes me by surprise. I have this memory of picking elderflower for winemaking in the fields behind the house on a soup-thick, sweltering, July day, that was thick with thunderflies. But it cannot have been. Elderflower is over long before then, and no matter how many times I try to correct the memory, I still think of elderflowers and oppressively hot and sticky late July afternoons where every fibre of my body longs for rain to fall. This year, like last, it is perhaps a few weeks early - Keble-Martin states flowering is from June, but it is, nevertheless, a late spring - early summer flower.

There has been a sudden profusion of large ox-eye daisies - bachelors buttons, fried-egg flower. Bursts of red campion's deep magenta and purpling vetch are sprinkled like botanical confetti along the towpath that are foaming white with lacy cow-parsley parasols. 

A couple of mother mallards have been making regular visits to all the boats. The most recent hatching was last week. The nest had been on Tracy's boat and, the mum properly spoilt with copious rations of wettened duck food. I think about 6 were successful and took to the water, by the next day, they were down to four. Mum bustles around, usually leading the way, the four tagging along behind, going from boat to boat. 

You can hear them as they round the bow of the boat, Mum first, a scatter of chicks, chinking and cheeping like fluffy yellow bats. The mother responding with chucking quacks and a strange guttural clap sound. It sounds like a beak clap, but her bill is wide open the entire time. The little balls of feathers buzz around the boat hull, pecking at the algae at the water line, and anything hiding in it. I throw mum a handful of duck food. One or two of the chicks break away and try to eat it, the spit it out and return to the hull side. The mother eats hungrily, but one of the ducklings is on the other side of the boat. Cheeps and quacks maintain contact, but the mother is clearly concerned. She pushes off, rounding the bow, the other three in tow.      

 

THE COLOUR OF WATER

What colour is the water? No, I don't think that is what I am actually asking. It is more like, how many colours can this stretch of water here be? How many colours can it contain? How can I capture the constantly shifting shades and morphing tones? 

I see this stretch of water, many, many times a day and it is always different. Here it is now, as I sit here, back propped up against the stern box that contains the water-hose and mooring gear. Its continually shifting surface, tessellating, rippling. Light fluidly flowing and pooling over the smooth contours of the water. 

This is not water I float on, but light. I have made my home on living waters of liquid light. Is liquid light a colour?

Once more I am confounded, defeated, frustrated. I feel my knuckles itch and tense around this pen as I try to record this moment. For years I have tried to describe water. To discover a palette of nouns of colours to match the shifting flow that thwart my pen. Crafty similes to capture the slipperiness of a reality that I can so easily pass without a glance - as if a living stretch of liquid light filled with so much life, is not worth the glance of recognition. 

I remember, perhaps it was over 40 years ago, standing with Tony in a carpark, beside a clear stream that flowed down from the fells. It was sunny and something about that stream caught both of our attention, for I remember both of us standing there for quite some time, watching the crystal sharp water flowing over the gravel and pebbles, the sway of green water weeds, the rills and pools as it tumbled over the bigger boulders. And after a while, Tony said, "How would you describe that sound?" The sound this stream is making on a sunny summer day beside a small carpark in a landscape of drystone walls and fells. For a while, we each threw our handful of words at it, as children like throwing stones into water. Skimming nouns and adjectives - but unlike skimmed stones, none of them sank. All bounced clear. We got close, I think. But I can't remember exactly. But I do know, we left unresolved. 

 

I often remember that day - when I am stuck. Staring into nothing, searching desperately for a word, a phrase. Poetry helps. Poetry allows you to use your peripheral vision. It's like doubling back - the collie's long out-run so as not to spook the sheep - and take the thing unawares. Poetry can focus on the feelings of encountering the experience of the thing, rather the thing itself. But even poetry has its limits. And today, I am stuck again. As stuck as I was with Tony in the stream-side carpark in the sunshine of youthfulness and lark song. 

 

The clouds part and sunshine breaks through at the exact time as a shower of rain scatters like flung gravel cast broad across the water. It feels good - the rain. The sun dips back behind a cloud and a warm southerly breeze bustles and gusts up the valley. The rain soon passes. 

 

All the while, insects skim the surface of the water - the same water whose essence I am failing to describe. At times, their legs trail along the surface, cutting two spider-thread thin lines in the water.

Their flight is fast, erratic. They're mesmerising. Sometimes, my eyes can scarcely keep up with them. To me, their flight is entirely random - a chaotic frenzy of movement - but I have learnt long ago, to recognise that insects live their own lives by their own patterns of order. I am reminded of Job and that my world is shared with other worlds that I know nothing about and therefore must tread wisely and chose my paths with care. 

 

The archdeacon pushes passed. He is in a rush, feet paddling energetically, head and neck thrust forward with exertion. He looks like a runner sprinting for the finishing tape. A crystal bow-wave foams and glitters around his chest, pushing up towards his neck. As he passes, he is making low chucking sounds, but I can see no other ducks nearby. He glances across at me, sitting on the stern, and then, literally, ploughs on through the churning water, leaving behind a wake of disturbance alive with his presence.            

Across from me, the yellow iris (or flag) is out. Exotic bright yellow pennants topping tall emerald bladed leaves. The water beneath them is so still, almost as if it is entranced with the beauty it reflects. In the skittering breeze, there's just the hint of slight vibration that blurs their form into an impressionistic smear of oil-painted colours; nettle green and daffodil yellow.   

Above it are the wooden fence railings at the top of the bank where, a short while ago, a magpie perched. And above that the dense green crown outlying the last of Arden's old forest. 

And then, above that - the heaped cumulus castles, towering and anvilling into cumulonimbus thunder clouds. Their bases are dark and ragged - like soaked sheep's wool, but their looming walls are as white as newly sculpted snowdrifts. The sky is a patchwork counterpane of clouds sewn together, by needle thin airliners that flash silver and white.

Now two swallows dart low, arrowing just above the water. There are two of them. They jink and turn, whirl, and swoop, cutting the air with bladed wings. They bullet and flash for two more sweeps and then, on some hidden command, pull up high and power off over hedge and over the fields. 

And the water still shimmers and ripples, and the colours and light still dance. 

And I am still confounded.   

How can we live in a reality and live so easily in it and be so familiar with it that we are no longer surprised each day by it, and yet STILL have no language to describe it?

 

Each year we coin new words to describe our new worlds; reifying the digital, embodying the notional, until the conceptual becomes our reality that is so real, we no longer even feel the need to look beyond it. And so, the internet, the cloud, digital world, become more real than this body of water that defeats my ability to describe. Baudrillard described this as hyperreality - we are living in hyper realities and it is not surprising that we are losing the grip on our earthy home. Nor is it surprising that a few of my students feel more connection and at home within virtual worlds than they do in a wooded copse on Lickey Hills. 

And so I sit here, my back resting against the stern side trying to capture water with the wateryness of words and I am amazed and frustrated. I can either capture something about water in words, but it isn't this - that I am looking at, experiencing, the world that is meeting me unfiltered. Or it is that - the glint and movement, the sounds, the smells, the nuzzle of air as it rolls down the valley, the kiss of light, the shades beneath the campion flowers, the strange pulse of connection and unfamiliarity when I look into the eyes of the duck that is passing - but I cannot write it, I cannot hold it or paint it with words. 

I can have words or this...   ... This indescribable moment that blazes in the middle of an ordinary day which I have no power to articulate.

It reminds me of something that, poet and nature writer, Kathleen Jamie wrote about in her book  Findings: ('Sabbath' in Findings)

[Reading]

I think Jamie has a point. There are times when we need to hold our hands up and fall back on the elemental nouns. Perhaps it is good and even right that even the profundity of the mundane and the beauty of the ordinary cannot be trapped in words and pinned like dead butterflies on a collector's wall.

When I first fell under the spell of early English writing, I fell in love with their understanding and clear love and respect for language. I love the idea of 'Wordhord', Described by Hannah Videen in her fabulous book 'The Wordhord:Daily Life in Old English' which could as equally be subtitled as, 'Old English in Daily Life', as 'a hord or trove of words.' She goes on to explain, that a wordhord wasn't a physical object like a dictionary, or even a library, but a metaphor for the collection of words and phrases a poet memorised and drew upon for their craft." 

 

It appears a number of times in Old English texts usually, Videen notes, alongside the verb on-lucan (to unlock). In Beowulf, the hero, 'unlocks his wordhord' as he begins to address King Hrothgar's watchman. 

 

Wordhords represent the technique used by oral poets, bards and minstrels the world over from pre-antiquity to modern rap. In ancient Greece, Homer's Odyssey and Iliad are filled with stock phrase, tag words - 'rosy-fingered dawn' 'slim-ankled Hebe' - it is what gives ancient oral works their lyricism and rhythm, repeated motifs slipping in and out of the hearer's consciousness that drive the narrative and gives it a symphonic air. It is how I best understand good jazz music - the riffs and the freestyle. The wordhord was truly a prized possession recognising the importance and power of words and the power of combination of words (kennings) to evoke such strong emotional responses when spun well.  

Words as treasure, precious jewels; things to be valued and carefully handled and admired. Hard won. Powerful. I love too that writers of all crafts are described as wordsmiths. Although, alas, I have found that its derivation is much later than the Old English horders of words. Yet it suits the task of witing so well. The skilful hammering and a moulding in the flame of inspiration, new words, new forms, carefully fashioned and wrought. But also, the aspect I know so well, wrestling and sweating in the furnace creativity to bring to surface that word of such creative wonders that it cab take the breath away - or at least approximate the wonder inside the imagination, or in the fields outside the door.

 

And yet, I am also so very aware that viewed this way, words and language are simply an extension of conquest. Our drive to capture, to control, to own. To impose and reify our own perspective on that which can never be owned. To lock it into place, to categorise it and lead it by the chains of our language into OUR world. And we are good at it.

But, actually, I am so glad the depth of our experience when - to use John Moriarty's expression, ‘nature happens to us’, unfiltered, unedited - is beyond the reach of words.

 

I am still in love with words. WORDS help us to make sense out of chaos, call down the stars and weave meaning into the darkness of our universes. They can make us tyrants and heroes, warriors and healers, but most of all - if we are brave enough - they can give us wings to fly.

These words are my attempts to find the songs beyond the mundane. They are the shadows and shapes of my soul. They are MY attempts to fly.

 

Words can remind us, challenge us, reconnect us, even help us see things in new ways. But there are also times to remember, to lay words to one side. To experience the now in all its inexpressible depth and beauty. I still cannot capture the sound of that stream on that sunny day so long ago. Nor will I ever be able to capture in words the colours of this water, right here, right now. But that is good. It is enough to sit and let this moment happen.

I was struck this week by something Thomas Merton wrote.

[Reading]

'This day will not come again' and nor should it - and nor should we try to hold it back or try to stop its flow through the fingers of our perception and mount it, dead, upon our walls like a trophy. 

There are moments which we must learn to just experience - because that is the greatest and most authentic response we can give it. To remember again, and acknowledge, that our worlds are filled with so much beauty, complexity, life and transience, that it is far too big to be captured by words or images. And that our inability to articulate it is nothing about our failures, but about the staggering wonder of life that we fool ourselves into thinking is just ordinary and mundane.